Sunday, February 22, 2009

Book Review: Historic Photos of Daytona Beach, by Harold D Cardwell, Sr.

I was born a stone's throw from the Daytona International Speedway. I drove my first car down International Speedway Boulevard, thinking the odometer didn't work. "I can't get it up over forty!" I complained. My dad, ever the calm one, quietly explained what a "tachometer" was, and informed me I had been flying down the road at forty miles OVER the speed limit. He never broke a sweat. The salesman recovered the power of speech by the time we returned to the lot, and I had my first car - a fully-loaded, powder blue Ford Mustang. I road my bicycle around the race track - two and a half miles of mind-numbingly boring scenery - and I've driven a car down the beach, the beach by which I judge all other beaches in the world.

In November 2008, I was asked to take a look at Historic Photos of Houston, by Betty Trapp Chapman. It highlighted how little I knew about my current hometown, and piqued my interest in learning more. Naturally, I was eager to review Historic Photos of Daytona Beach, by Harold D Cardwell, Sr. What might I learn about my birth place and its history? Well, first of all, I had no idea that Daytona was named for its founder, Matthias Day.

Most interesting, to me, were the photos and stories of Mary McLeod Bethune, a black woman who, in 1904, started a school for the children of railroad workers. Her first students were five little girls. That school would eventually grow into what is now the well-respected Bethune-Cookman University.

Also fascinating are the panoramic views of the beach - taken just as oceanside development began, and long before tall hotels and condominiums defined the landscape of the coast. There is a photo of the first car in Daytona; it arrived there in 1898. But some of the first people to drive on the beach are shown here in horse-drawn carriages. Wind-sailing is nothing new; there are photos here of tricycles with sails, along with an impressive array of human-powered, steam-powered, and gas-powered vehicles on the beach. "A lone horse and buggy stands apart in the distance, as though to suggest its passage into history." There is a sense of something lost to time, even as you stand on the brink of progress and so much to be gained in the future. On page 91, there is a photo of aviatrix Ruth Law in her biplane on Daytona Beach's "first landing strip or airport" - the beach itself.

In my lifetime alone, I've watched Daytona Beach sparkle, grow grubby, and shine again - a visible indicator of ups and downs in the national economy. It is a seasonal town with a small core of local residents and a thriving throng of visitors during Spring Break, summer, and other holidays. Fashions have changed dramatically over the years. It's a bit startling to realize that, in the early 1900s, women wore dark wool skirts, leggings, and shoes to go bathing in the ocean! No doubt they didn't swim far - they'd have drowned under the weight of their clothes. Daytona Beach has never been short on entertainment - from automobile races and time trials conducted along the full length of the beach, to concerts and organ grinders (there's an organ grinder and his monkey, on page 57), to biplanes and strolls along the dunes, Daytona Beach has long been a favorite vacation destination. Speakeasies and gambling thrived in Prohibition era Daytona Beach, until residents demanded enforcement of the laws.

I find myself longing to see side-by-side photos: then and now. Daytona Beach has evolved so much that I don't recognize what should be familiar landmarks. This book makes me feel young.

From photographs of the 1920s and 1930s, I begin to see landmarks I really recognize, such as the Boardwalk, the Pier, the Clock Tower, and the Daytona Beach Bandshell, which until now, I didn't know was a Work Projects Administration (WPA) project. There is a sign showing speeds recorded along the Measured Mile: from 68 mph in 1903 to 276.82 mph in 1935. Guys take note - on page 183, you can see why "Lifeguard" is one of the best jobs in town.

Historic Photos of Daytona Beach, by Harold D Cardwell, Sr. is one of many wonderful, annotated collections of black-and-white archive photos showcasing the fascinating history of cities throughout the United States. I have spent hours perusing the pages, and see or learn something new each time I lose myself in the history of familiar places.